Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Mr. President, You’re No Ronald Reagan

How does Obama stack up against the GOP's favorite president?

By , the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.
GettyImages-103854436_960
GettyImages-103854436_960

As the 2016 campaign cycle begins to whir, no one will be surprised to see many Republican candidates claiming the mantle of Ronald Reagan. What is a surprise is to see President Obama also competing in the “Reagan sweepstakes.” Yesterday Politico reported that President Obama appears to be self-consciously trying to position himself as a latter-day Ronald Reagan, in terms of being a “transformative” president. Or maybe this shouldn’t be such a surprise -- as I have written before, Democrats today seem handicapped by the lack of any recent presidential icons that their party deems worthy of emulation. (There’s always the possibility that the Obama White House team is seeking to bait the GOP with the Reagan comparison, since they know that Reagan references are catnip for Republicans. If so, this cat is happy to take the bait!)

President Obama still has a year and a half left in office, so his record remains incomplete and it is far too early to know how he will be regarded by history. But he does have a sufficient record thus far to at least tentatively assess the Reagan comparison. It is not favorable to Obama. To paraphrase former Senator Lloyd Bentsen's (D-Tex.) famous quip, I never knew Ronald Reagan. But I know enough history to know that Barack Obama is no Ronald Reagan.

On almost every meaningful dimension, when he left the presidency Reagan also left the United States in a better position than when he took office. If present trends continue with Obama, the opposite will be true -- America will be much worse off when he leaves office than when he took the inaugural oath on Jan. 20, 2009. Here are just some of the ways that the Reagan-Obama comparison reflects poorly on Obama.

As the 2016 campaign cycle begins to whir, no one will be surprised to see many Republican candidates claiming the mantle of Ronald Reagan. What is a surprise is to see President Obama also competing in the “Reagan sweepstakes.” Yesterday Politico reported that President Obama appears to be self-consciously trying to position himself as a latter-day Ronald Reagan, in terms of being a “transformative” president. Or maybe this shouldn’t be such a surprise — as I have written before, Democrats today seem handicapped by the lack of any recent presidential icons that their party deems worthy of emulation. (There’s always the possibility that the Obama White House team is seeking to bait the GOP with the Reagan comparison, since they know that Reagan references are catnip for Republicans. If so, this cat is happy to take the bait!)

President Obama still has a year and a half left in office, so his record remains incomplete and it is far too early to know how he will be regarded by history. But he does have a sufficient record thus far to at least tentatively assess the Reagan comparison. It is not favorable to Obama. To paraphrase former Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s (D-Tex.) famous quip, I never knew Ronald Reagan. But I know enough history to know that Barack Obama is no Ronald Reagan.

On almost every meaningful dimension, when he left the presidency Reagan also left the United States in a better position than when he took office. If present trends continue with Obama, the opposite will be true — America will be much worse off when he leaves office than when he took the inaugural oath on Jan. 20, 2009. Here are just some of the ways that the Reagan-Obama comparison reflects poorly on Obama.

Negotiations with adversaries

Reagan and Obama have in common a willingness to negotiate with adversaries — but that is where the similarities end. Before Reagan sought to enter negotiations with the Soviet Union, he first worked to strengthen America’s negotiating posture through a combination of a major military build-up and through various asymmetric measures to bring pressure on the Soviets — such as providing arms to the Afghan resistance, support for human rights and dissidents within the USSR, and escalated sanctions on the Soviet economy, particularly energy exports. In contrast, Obama has weakened the American position towards Iran by withdrawing all combat troops from Iraq, slashing the Pentagon budget, disparaging the military option so much that the Iranians know he would never use force, and ignoring rather than supporting Iranian dissidents. Additionally, Reagan was always willing to walk away from a bad deal — and even to walk away from a “good deal” if he thought it meant too many concessions by the United States, such as his refusal to give up the Strategic Defense Initiative at Reykjavik. Whereas Obama now sends signals of desperation for a deal so much that I share Peter Feaver’s fears that the Obama administration will be willing to take a bad deal over no deal with Iran.

Defense

Reagan engineered a remarkable turnaround at the Pentagon, substantially increasing the defense budget, leading the design and procurement of revolutionary new weapons platforms, and restoring confidence in the previously demoralized American military. Obama, in contrast, has engineered such severe cuts to the Pentagon that all four of his defense secretaries have warned with growing alarm about the risks of a hollowed-out military.

Democratization and freedom

Reagan pursued a deliberate strategy of supporting freedom movements worldwide, with both American allies and adversaries. This led to a substantial increase in human liberty, not just when the Iron Curtain fell, but also in Asia and Latin America as countries such as the South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Chile all underwent democratic transitions partly as a result of Reagan administration policies. Whereas on President Obama’s watch, America’s support for human rights and democracy has shriveled, and global democratization has eroded every year he has been in office.

Alliances

Reagan renewed and strengthened America’s relations with our allies, especially in Europe and Asia, and developed famously close partnerships with world leaders such as Great Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, West Germany’s Helmut Kohl, Japan’s Yasuhiro Nakasone, and Canada’s Brian Mulroney. One of the most frequent critiques of the Obama administration has been the degradation of America’s alliances and loss of faith in us by many of our most important partner nations. And, as I and others have observed before, President Obama has failed to cultivate a deep relationship with a single important global leader.

Geopolitical standing and national security

Reagan left office with America’s global standing substantially improved. On his watch, America became stronger, safer, and more secure. Our primary peer competitor, the Soviet Union, was on its way to extinction, other threats to our security were diminished, and the United States was poised to become the dominant global superpower. In regrettable contrast, under Obama the threat of jihadist terrorism has proliferated, irresponsibly conducted withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan are looking more and more like defeats, great power competitors Russia and China have increased in strength and influence, and a dubious Iran deal threatens to embolden an American adversary and unleash a nuclear proliferation cascade in the world’s most volatile region. Given this record, it is sad but telling that President Obama envisions one of his most significant geopolitical legacies to be embracing a backwards Caribbean nation ruled by a pair of unrepentant Communists. (Obama’s hoped-for visit to Havana to have a cigar with Raul Castro is hardly the stuff of Reagan standing at the Brandenburg Gate calling for Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall.) If present trends continue to January 2017, Obama will leave America weaker, less safe, and less secure.

This is just a cursory overview of the Reagan and Obama comparison, and other areas — such as the economy or national morale — would also look more favorable for Reagan than Obama. Hence the puzzle, why does the Obama White House persist in promoting such an unflattering comparison? By Obama’s own words, it is a political appeal. According to Politico: “‘Much in the same way that the Reagan Revolution required Bush Senior’ to complete his transformation of American politics, Obama told alumni of his White House staff on a private conference call this week, ‘we’ve got to make sure that we’re laying the foundation” for the next Democrat elected.'”

This telegraphs that the Obama political team will likely grit their teeth and throw their support behind Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. Yet here the comparison with Reagan is not so favorable either. George H. W. Bush embraced the Reagan record and ran deliberately in 1988 as an heir to the Reagan legacy, and as Reagan’s vice president he had legitimate claim to do so. Whereas Hillary Clinton, despite serving as Obama’s Secretary of State for four years, thus far has distanced herself from Obama’s foreign policy record (even in those few areas where she should embrace it, such as Trade Promotion Authority and the Trans Pacific Partnership).

If the Obama administration really does desire to emulate Reagan’s political legacy, they should start by emulating his policy legacy — and they have just 18 months left to do so.

MIKE SARGENT/AFP/Getty Images

Will Inboden is the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, both at the University of Texas at Austin, a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.

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